Sunday 28 August 2016


An original poem penned by R. Yehuda haLevi


Rabbi Yehuda haLevi (1075-1141)[1], the great Spanish physician[2], poet[3], philosopher and author of the Kuzari, is said to have been trampled to death by an Arab horseman immediately upon his arrival in the Holy Land (some say Jerusalem).[4] In this article we will look at various versions of the story in an attempt to see whether it is real or merely a legend. We will also explore whether or not R. Yehuda haLevi actually even reached Israel from Spain in the first place.


Rabbi Avraham Zacuto (1452-1514) wrote one of the first major historical chronicles of the Jewish People, entitled Sefer haYuchsin. In this work he clearly documents that R. Yehuda haLevi did reach Israel. He wrote; “R. Yehuda haLevi was fifty years old when he came to Eretz Yisrael, and he is buried together with his first cousin, Ibn Ezra.”[5] 
However, there is no mention of his dying through being trampled by any Arab horseman.


The earliest source specifically mentioning an Arab horseman is found in Shalshelet haKaballah by R. Gedalia Ibn Yachya (1526-1587).[6] Although writing some four centuries after R. Yehuda haLevi, he records that the source of the story of the Arab horse rider came from ‘an old man’.

With many other works following with common references to the Arab horseman, it soon became part of the accepted historical narrative.[7]


R. Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), known as Shadal, played a pivotal role in bringing many hitherto unknown writings of R. Yehuda haLevi to the attention of the modern world. 

Except for the Kuzari, most of R. Yehuda haLevi’s writings and poems were lost. Then, 1838 a book dealer accidentally discovered a ‘divan’(medieval collection) of his poems in Tunisia and bought it for Shadal – who, in 1840, went on to publish 66 poems under the title, Betulat bat Yehuda. Much of our knowledge about R. Yehuda haLevi, today, comes through Shadal’s work which incorporated annotations by the original compiler of the divan, Yehoshua bar Eliyahu haLevi (about whom very little is known).

Shadal mentioned in his compilation that the common account of the horseman was questionable because Jerusalem was, at the time the story is said to have taken place, under Christian control and Arabs were not permitted to enter the city. According to him, R.Yehuda haLevi never made it to Israel but died naturally somewhere between Egypt and Eretz Yisrael.

Supporting this thesis, it is noted that when Ibn Ezra referred to R. Yehuda haLevi in his commentary on the Chumash, he simply wrote ‘menuchato sheleima’ (may he rest in peace), a term usually referring to a natural death, instead of a reference to al kiddush haShem (martyrdom).[8]


Interestingly, the well known Jewish historian Simon Dubnow believes the story to be essentially true, except he rather suggests that a Crusader may have killed some Jews soon after the arrival of R. Yehuda haLevi and that somehow the stories got intertwined.


To compound matters, the historian Israel Zinberg (1873-1939) is of the opinion that R. Yehuda haLevi actually returned from Israel and went back to Spain. He based this on a comment by a Spanish student of R. Yehuda haLevi, R. Shlomo Parchon who wrote about a saying of his teacher from the period ‘after R. Yehuda haLevi was in Egypt’. This does seem to strongly suggest that R. Yehuda haLevi did return to Spain. Furthermore, no mention is made by R. Parchon of any unusual form of death.


Amazingly, we now have evidence that R. Yehuda haLevi wrote extensively during the last year of his life.

Piecing together documents discovered in the late 1800’s in the Cairo Geniza - including fifty five original fragments specifically referring to R. Yehuda haLevi - the following series of events appears to have taken place:

(Extracted from a summary by R. Eliezer Brodt of the last decade of R. Yehuda haLevi’s life.[9])

In 1129 at the age of fifty four, R. Yehuda haLevi decided to make the journey from Spain to Eretz Yisrael. He began his trip the next year in 1130. On the way he stopped in North Africa and became a close associate of Ibn Ezra[10]. Then, for reasons unknown, he returned to Spain.

Ten years later, in 1140 he set off again and eventually arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, on September 8.

“Can Egypt hold me when my soul’s thoughts pull me to Zion’s mount,
On the day I take to her comforter’s trail,
My pilgrim’s hair uncombed, my feet unshod,
My heart’s flame will scorch her stones, my eyes will flood her soil.”

Then, just before the Shavuot of 1141 he boarded a boat which set sail for Israel on Shavuot.
Six months later he was no longer alive.

It appears that spent two months in the Holy Land before he died. From the documentation it is unclear exactly how he died other than the fact that no mention is made of any dramatic event causing his passing.

However, the most vital and significant document of all is a (damaged but still legible) letter dated three months after his death. This letter refers to R. Yehuda haLevi as ‘zecher kadosh livracha’, an expression reserved exclusively for a martyred Jew.

This is the strongest piece of evidence lending credence to the possibility that R. Yehuda haLevi may have been killed in some form of intentional attack.

Furthermore, the letter goes on to refer to ‘bishearei Yerushalayim’ informing us that he met his untimely end at the gates of Jerusalem, again in keeping with the tenor of the ‘legend’.

To back this letter up, there also exists another letter which similarly refers to R. Yehuda haLevi as a ‘kadosh’ (martyr).

This is truly a fascinating discovery. As a result of seven hundred year old fragments of letters, recently found in the Geniza, we now have perhaps the most accurate account of the death of R. Yehuda haLevi – and it appears to be in keeping with the popular perception perpetuated over just as many years. 

Although there are no references to an Arab horseman per se, the ‘legend’ of R. Yehuda haLevi being slain or trampled at the gates of Jerusalem may no longer just be a legend.


As much as we now know about R. Yehuda haLevi there is still much shrouded in mystery. From his early love and drinking poems to his probable martyr’s death, it has been said that his personal piety intensified as he grew older.

A man in your fifties and you still would be young?
Soon your life would have flown like bird from a branch!
Yet you shirk the service of G-d and crave the service of men,
And run after the many, and shirk the One...

There are so many mysteries surrounding this man. We do know that he was born in Spain, but we are not sure if it was in Toledo or Tudela.  We do not have absolute clarity as to where he died either. According to the classical accounts, it may have been Jerusalem, Acre, Safed, Tiberius, Cairo, back in Spain, or even somewhere along the way. 

Yet ironically, if one ignores some of the older historical texts and instead interprets the latest (most accurate and in fact oldest) evidence from the Cairo Geniza - it does seem quite likely that R. Yehuda haLevi may indeed have been murdered at the gates of Jerusalem, possibly in keeping with the legend.



[Note: These are translations. Some are better than others. But for their full acoustic value they need to be read in and interpreted from the original Hebrew.]

Another poem by R. Yehuda haLevi
An example of his wit:

“One day I observed a grey hair in my head.

I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said;

You may smile if you wish, at your treatment of me.

But a score of my friends soon will make a mockery of you.”

The Swan Song, (a milder love poem) written in Egypt:

“Wondrous is this land to see...

But more fair than all to me is you, slender, gentle maiden.

Ah, time’s swift flight I fain would stay, forgetting that my locks are grey.”

The Storm:

The mighty ship falls like a speck before G-d.
The mast and its banner cannot withstand,
The boat and its decks are confused,
Lower, middle and upper together...
The masts' strength is of no use,
The aged's counsel does not benefit.
The masts of Cedar are no more than stubble,
The fir-trees are turned to reeds...
The sockets of iron are like chaff.

The pilgrimage:

“Forgotten are my synagogue, the peace that was its study hall,
My Sabbaths and their sweet delights...I’ve left them all,
I’ve swapped by bedroom for dry brush, its safety for dry chaparral (thorny bush),
The scents and subtle fragrances that cloyed (excess of pleasure) my soul,
For thistles’ smells,
And put away the mincing (elegant) gait of landlubbers,
To hoist my sail and cross the sea,
Until I reach the land that is the L-rds footstool.”

Writing about his love of Zion:

“Are we to haunt old wormy graves...

Are synagogues our only inheritance,

And is G-d’s holy mount to have no heirs?

And where in East or West are we more safe

Than in the land whose many gates face the heavens.”

Yehuda HaLevi, by Hillel Halkin, New York, Schocken.
The Legend of R. Yehuda Halevi’s Death: Truth or Fiction, By R. Eliezer Brodt.
Selected Poems of Yehuda Halevi, Translated and annotated by Hillel Halkin.
The Jewish Poets of Spain, Penguin.

[1] A student of the Rif and contemporary of the Ri Megash (who was the teacher of the Rambam’s father).
[2] At one stage in his life he is known to have complained that he was too busy with his practice of  medicine to become a scholar. (See Diwan des Abdul – Hasan Jehuda ha-Levi 1 p 224.)
[3] He wrote secular poems, (some quite descriptive) love poems, even drinking poems, poems expressing yearning for the Land of Israel and liturgical poems. The poems have been characterised as having an ‘acoustic effect and wit’.  They soon spread as far as India. Some of the (by some estimates) 800 odd poems he wrote, even found their way into Karaite liturgy.
In 1967, his poems about the Land of Israel inspired some verses in Yerushalayim shel Zahav; “To all your songs I am a lute”.
[4] Some accounts say the death was accidental, other accounts say it was intentional. Some say it was a Bedouin.
[5] Further in the book, however, it mentions that he was buried not with his cousin Ibn Ezra, but instead with R. Yehuda bar Illay in Safed. Either way it is recorded that R. Yehuda haLevi did make it to Israel.
[6] The book is also known as Sefer Yachya, and was written over a period of forty years. It recorded the events in Jewish History up to his day. Some criticize the work as being inaccurate due to the various travels of the author while writing it and also perhaps due to errors in its copying.
[7] See Kore haDorot, by R. David Conforte (1618-1678). See Seder haDorot, by R. Yechiel Halperin (1660-1749). See also Tevous haAretz, by R. Yehosef Schwartz (1804-1865).
[8] Cited by R. Eliezer Brodt from R. Michael Sachs in Die religiose Poesie der Juden in Spanien.
[9] This is based upon Yehuda Halevi U’ vnei Chugo, by Professors Moshe Gil and Ezra Fleischer (a 640 page study of Geniza material relating to R. Yehuda haLevi).
[10] Some say he was taught by Ibn Ezra while still in Spain, in Granada.


  1. Check on Conclusion you ut Yehuda Hanasi instead of Halevy.

    Amazing post!